Exclusive Interview with Simon May, Composer of the ‘EastEnders’ Theme

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By Melissa Berry

Simon May is a British musician and composer, best known for composing some of British television’s most popular theme tunes, including EastEnders and Howards’ Way.

The EastEnders theme is synonymous with the ‘doof doofs’ – the drum rolls that end each and every episode of our favourite soap.

Another EastEnders storyline gave May a hit in 1986. Nick Berry, who played Wicksy, topped the charts with ‘Every Loser Wins,’ which sold over a million copies. It won the Ivor Novello Award for best-selling single of 1986.

In 1993 the theme itself was given a ‘jazzy’ update that fans disliked, with many claiming it was too ‘posh’ for Walford. An updated version of the theme was introduced in 1994. And later, with Johnny Griggs, May wrote another set of lyrics for the theme. ‘I’ll Always Believe in You’ featured lead vocals by Sharon Benson and was based around the extended version of the 1993 theme.

In 2009 he was asked to revamp the EastEnders theme again, to update the one running from 1994, making it lighter in tone and bringing back elements of the original theme missing in the previous version.
May has also written variations for character Peggy Mitchell’s exit, ‘Peggy’s Theme,’ which aired in September 2010, as well as one for Pat Butcher.

Before becoming a full-time musician he had a career as a schoolteacher, teaching languages and music at Kingston Grammar School and still teaches part time today.

I recently had the chance to ask this EastEnders legend a few questions regarding his career before he headed off on his summer holiday. Here’s what he had to say.

Walford Gazette: When and where did you first write music?
Simon May: I often jokingly say that I started writing the first six notes of EastEnders when I had my first piano lesson at the age of seven in my home town Devizes in Wiltshire. My first piano teacher, Ann, taught me the simple scale of C major, and if you think about it, the notes C D E F G A are the start of the EastEnders melody. The best way to give you a serious answer to your question is to give you a very short extract from my autobiography: “I remember so well the very first time I performed my first meaningful improvisation. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I had just bought the sheet music of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I’ve never been good at reading music. (The sight-reading part of my piano examinations used to scare the life out of me.) I couldn’t play what was on the sheet music, so I started to work out what the basic chords were and then move the fingers of my right hand around to create a new melody over the original chord sequence. It was a magical and exciting discovery that I could create my own tunes!”

WG: US fans are most familiar with the themes you have written for EastEnders and Howard’s Way. As a matter of fact, a photo of the EE sheet music appeared in the very first issue of the Walford Gazette! Can you tell us of other pieces we might be familiar with?
SM: Wife Swap keeps using one of my compositions, ‘Web of Deception,’ as incidental music in Wife Swap USA, but as it is Production Music (i.e., Library Music) we don’t get a screen credit. I also wrote the score for the movie The Dawning starring Anthony Hopkins and Hugh Grant, which was a cult hit in the UK and the US.

WG: How did you become involved with EastEnders initially? Were you approached to write the theme?
SM: I had written the themes to two BBC-TV drama series that Tony Holland the script editor liked a lot. When he was developing E8 (which was the working title for EastEnders) he invited me
to meet him and Julia Smith and submit ideas for the new soap theme. Happily they both loved my second attempt.

WG: It must have been amazing to record the lyrics with Anita Dobson and to appear on Top of the Pops. Can you tell us a little bit about this experience?
SM: Here’s another short extract from my book, which hopefully helps to answer your question:
“Anita Dobson was one of the EastEnders cast who I had great fun working with when she sang the vocal version of EastEnders in 1986. Not only is she a consummate professional, but also a very warm and kind person.
“Since the launch of the programme I had received hundreds of letters from the public saying that the tune should be turned into a song and even sometimes sending me their suggested ideas. Don Black who had just written the wonderful words for Howards’ Way was my natural choice of lyricist. Although I consider myself a lyricist as well as a composer I felt that Don would do a far better job, which indeed he did. I am not sure how many people realize how original his lyric is – yes, it’s easy to fall in love, but staying in love for a lifetime is much harder.”

WG: The EE theme and the ‘doof doofs’ that appear at the end of each episode are now iconic. (I once sang the lyrics with a friend while floating down the Thames in London!) Did you know that they would be this famous 30 years on, and do you watch EastEnders now?
SM: I still watch EastEnders as often as I can. I believe it’s the best soap on UK television, and it received loads of awards this year at the Soap Awards (including best UK soap) – this does rather show that I’m not biased!

Here’s another extract from my book which tells you how the ‘doof doof’ was created:

“When I compose and record an important theme tune I always create a long version, partly because it might one day be marketed as a commercial three-minute recording, and partly because it’s easier to edit a short version from a long one rather than the other way round. Creating a long version also gives you the freedom to experiment and take more risks than if you are only creating a short thirty-second version.
“So with EastEnders, I created a three-minute version starting with the opening statement which was to become the opening title music. “From that middle section, how could we get back to the more contemporary end section which had a different feel to the Cockney section? I knew that there would have to be a dramatic drum fill to create a musical distraction and bring us back to the feel of the main piece. That fill (now referred to as the ‘doof doof’) was a rhythmic reflection of the last triplet ‘hook’ in the main melody. It was therefore compatible but also unexpected and acted as a delightful bridge between the two different musical styles.
“When I was mixing the tracks, I asked the engineer Neil to solo the drum fill which was played on the electronic Simmons drum kit by the very talented drummer Graham Broad. When I offered it to Julia and Tony as the dramatic start of the end titles they loved it. (It was only years later that the drum fill was added to the opening titles.)
“That short drum fill has been the subject of much curiosity and comment over the years. Every actor who receives his new script apparently goes to the last page first to see whether he or she has got the final ‘doof doof’ line. Shane Richie once told me that he was one of the privileged few to be given the last spoken line in his first episode on the show.”

WG: Do you have a favourite EastEnders character?
SM: Mmm… so many. Dot, Ian Beale, and I do miss Ben Hardy as Peter Beale.

WG: Do you find inspiration from other composers? Who might they be?
SM: Mozart, anyone who wrote a Michael Jackson song, Dolly Parton and loads of other new young singer songwriters like Ed Sheeran.

WG: Which non-musical influences are important to your music?
SM: My wife Rosie and our four children.

WG: What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
SM: Go to the ocean, watch political programmes and listen to BBC Radio 4 (Classical).

WG: What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
SM: When I get goosebumps as I compose!

WG: Of all the projects you have worked on so far, which is your favourite and why?
SM: Three favourites really: EastEnders, because of its huge success; Howards’ Way, because it’s my late mother’s favourite piece of music and my musical, Smike, because thousands of young people have enjoyed performing it since I wrote it at the start of my career.

WG: Do you think about the listener when you are composing?
SM: Definitely. I have faith that if I love what I’m writing, this enjoyment will be shared by my listeners.

WG: What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
SM: Abba and The Sound of Music!


WG: We are very much looking forward to your autobiography which is soon to be released. Can you tell us when it will be available and where fans can purchase it here in the US?
SM: Anyone can go to my website at www.simonmay.co.uk to see details about Doof Doof. The boxed set collection with abridged mini-autobiography and the unabridged full book will be released separately in the first week of September but can it be pre-ordered. Our third eldest daughter, Daisy, read the book recently and told me it made her laugh and cry. I couldn’t wish for a nicer comment. Initially, I honestly didn’t write it to make money, I just wanted to share my life and music with anyone who enjoys EastEnders.

WG: What are you currently working on? What’s next for Simon May?
SM: At the moment I am focusing on promoting the two formats of Doof Doof and then plan to write for a new musical project towards the end of this year.

Inside the Mind of Phil Mitchell


By Yasmin Headley

Editor’s note: The author is an accredited Integrative Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) psychotherapist in private practice in London, UK. Yasmin is also studying for a PhD in Mind-Body Medicine and Integrated Mental Health. She has followed EastEnders on and off over the years. You can reach her at yasminheadley@gmail.com and read more about her background at her website.

We are all subjects of our history. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something or is invested in your continuing to live as you are.

For some this is a good thing; for many this is not the way to live. Many would love the magic elixir that would get rid of every negative break with the past but it is not possible to do so with a bottle, a happy thought or magic.

In looking at a psyche of a person we would look at their history, their present life and their thoughts and behaviour. We would look at the support system and resources they have in their lives and we would look at what they do when they are stressed.

In some therapies, such as the psychodynamic and the psychoanalytic, a great deal of time is spent on the patient’s past and in the unfurling of their history. In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is the approach I take, I spend some time there, but I also look at their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. These are key to helping an individual change. Modern-day research shows how we are not just a subject of history and genetics but are also affected by epi-genetics. Epi-genetics is our environment, those who are around us, the food we eat and the activities we do.

Phil Mitchell
Phil is in his 50s. His mother Peggy ran the Queen Vic, which caught fire. They lost everything. He has even endured the loss of his businesses. He has a brother named Grant and a sister named Sam. He has one ex-wife and various girlfriends, has had an affair with his brother’s wife and has already spent some time in jail. Phew! Even just a few of these incidents would be enough to traumatize anyone. After what he has experienced, it is amazing that he makes it through each day!

Do you sometimes wonder where EastEnders would be without the Queen Vic? The Queen Vic is the centre of the universe, where everyone who is anyone goes for a drink. Owning this little piece of property seems to be akin to owning Central Park in New York, or Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. And where would EastEnders be without Phil Mitchell? No one has ever owned Phil Mitchell. They can lock him up, they can beat him, frame him, shoot him, steal his land and possessions… but whatever happens, like a cat, he will always land on his feet.

Peggy Mitchell often reminds her children that they are Mitchells and nothing ever fazes them: “We are Mitchells, and Mitchells stay together.” With this in mind, what makes Phil Mitchell tick? It seems to be family. Family is very important to a Mitchell. Phil certainly comes across as rough, tough and hardworking. Someone who will always hold a grudge and remember the smallest of slights. He has been in prison a few times, and at other times went free due to the shenanigans of a crooked solicitor and barrister. There have been tender moments with his mother, his girlfriends and some soft moments, even with Ian Beale.

Maybe the tough exterior really has a soft underbelly. So often a tough exterior is there to hide a gentle soul. Phil comes from a world where showing your underbelly is to show weakness. It is about survival not just of the fittest but where the one who makes the most noise wins. To grow up in the Mitchell household was also about not showing any vulnerability. Any sign of weakness was met with laughter, derision, jokes and sarcasm. He had been abused and beaten by his father as a child and was later worried he would also hit his own son. It is no wonder that he goes around with this tough shell. To walk tough would be to walk without anything going in and out. In truth all who do stay tough are often more vulnerable then those who are more open. In the end the tough shell does break open like an old Easter egg. It does crack, if not mentally then physically. Those who hide behind such toughness often find their heart, liver and possibly their immune system being affected. There is only so much we can hide. We are not built like shellfish with a hard body.

What would a possible diagnosis be? I think it may be borderline personality disorder (BPD). The thing about BPD is that when you are with a person with BPD, you often feel like you are walking on eggshells. One slight noise, one wrong action, one wrong word, one wrong look can set the person off. Phil has very intense emotions, which have to be expressed all the time. There seems to be no inhibition control. He is very impulsive and can also find it very hard to contain and control his anger. He finds it hard to keep and maintain stable relationships. I sometimes wonder why he does anything outside the law because his paranoia is itself painful enough to live with in his own head without adding to the reality of being always looked over by the police.

This, though, is one of the realities of BPD. There is a high correlation between those who have BPD and those who have suffered from trauma as a child. Childhood adversity can affect us as adults. We all, at some time or another, can have a BPD behaviour. It is possible in times of stress for any one of us to have one of the BPD behaviours. I could, for example, get very stressed and then feel very emotional and find my emotions going up and down. If it goes on for too long, and too often, then there is something going on. It is the regularity of the occurrence and the range of behaviours that make it BPD, and that is what Phil often shows. But that makes it interesting. So many of the people with BPD that I know can be so creative and interesting. It is never ever boring. The world would be a dull place without them. There would be no soaps on TV. No one taking risks in the world. But for people with BPD their world can be painful. It is painful to live with the thoughts and feelings they live with. They need peace but seem to automatically battle themselves and the world around them.

As an alcoholic, Phil has gone on and off “the wagon” as many times as the West Ham football team has been in and out for the Cup. He has even attended Alcoholics Anonymous but even that brought on the opportunity for an affair. But alcoholism is a lifelong issue, and it never goes away. He will always be in recovery. One of the deep issues as an alcoholic is co-dependency, which is at the root of all addictions. The cure? Long-term therapy. Somehow though, I cannot see Phil Mitchell learning mindfulness to help him relax. It sounds like the only thing that will bring on the relaxation response within him is a pint pulled at the Old Vic.

You will always know where you are with Phil. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and this is what is so endearing about him. EastEnders would be far too boring without him.

N.B. Please note that these are imaginary musings and do not represent an actual clinical case study.

What’s Going On Between Dish & the BBC?


The BBC’s inability to promote EastEnders in the US rears its ugly head once again, coming on the heels of the BCC killing the global iPlayer at the end of June.

Last Sunday night, DISH Network viewers who pay monthly US$9.95 to watch weekly four back-to-back episodes were rudely alerted to the news that EastEnders would not be available.

A cryptic statement says DISH and the BBC are working on a “new distribution model.” If history is to repeat itself, the news is not good.

In 2011 the BBC announced with much fanfare about it being launched in the US for an $8 monthly fee, but to no avail. A total of 11 countries – including in Western Europe, Canada and Australia – did have the global iPlayer until recently. But it’s a moot point since Auntie killed it elsewhere.

In late 2001, the BBC announced a video-on-demand offering for EastEnders that also never launched.

Here’s the Walford Gazette’s brief chronology of EastEnders’ uneasy history in the States.

• late 1987/early 1988 – about 50 public TV stations launch EastEnders, but not nearly 2 years behind the UK episodes (then only twice a week). National PBS is 300+ stations. EastEnders does not become the coveted Masterpiece Theatre must-run powerhouse that and it will enjoy nearly three decades later with Downton Abbey.

• late 1992 – the Walford Gazette launches and there are about 25 public TV stations still carrying EastEnders, but still available in major markets including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among others.

• 27 September 2003 – BBC America kills EastEnders, claiming poor ratings. The truth is they hadn’t promoted it even on their own airwaves in over a year.

• June 2004 – DISH Network offers a monthly subscription for EastEnders with episodes that run roughly concurrent with BBC-1.

• February 2005 – New York-area fans privately raise nearly $35,000 to reverse a cancellation decision by WLIW (Washington, DC-area do the same thing 2 years later), but other public stations in Philadelphia, southern and northern California, Denver, Seattle, et. al. drop EastEnders permanently.

• July 2015 – about 10 public TV stations still carry EastEnders, but it’s a constant battle, and the episodes are now at least a decade older than what BBC-1 shows because of the series first going 3X and then 4X a week. Public TV still only shows the programme twice a week.

The BBC’s decision to kill the global iPlayer no doubt expanded usage of gray-area computer VPN services – some free – that allow people in the US to access the iPlayer and pretend they’re in the UK.

Perhaps BBC Worldwide thought it was not worth the global iPlayer’s upkeep (or litigation) competing with free full episodes not only available through the aforementioned, gray-area VPN services, but also on YouTube, which the BBC supports with an official channel to watch EastEnders and other shows. The BBC also has quite a lot of programming on the OTT (over the top) online subscription service Hulu, which offers EE rival Coronation Street, but not EastEnders.

Media reports speculated that BBC America or other American networks that programmed British shows may have been the reason behind the global iPlayer never launching in the US.

Cassandra Power, BBC head of corporate & digital communications, tells the Walford Gazette that such speculation “has not been a factor” in the BBC’s recent communications to announce the closure of the global iPlayer, which she termed a “trial.”

Four years later, we still have no idea why the iPlayer never launched in the US. Nor do we know why DISH and the BBC have reexamined the PPV offering. If it was a lack of subscribers, they certainly did nothing to promote its availability. When you called the toll-free number, the representatives had no idea what you were talking about, and EastEnders wasn’t even mentioned on the website.

Stay tuned. It’ll be interesting to see if that “new distribution model being finalized by DISH and BBC Worldwide” ever emerges, considering the historic indifference both parties have shown towards EastEnders. Hope they prove me wrong.